Iraqi mural depicting a sunset in Basrah, Iraq
We skipped breakfast and decided to sleep in a bit until 10 am. Today, Capt. Porter had scheduled us to have lunch with LTC Dingman, a psychiatrist here in Basrah and the lead psychiatrist for all of USD-S.
LTC Dingman is from the New England area and has a private practice there when he is not on duty as part of his contract with the Army National Guard.
We sat down and began our friendly interrogation of one another. After explaining our project to him it turns out that the Colonel has dabbled in creating murals himself and when he mentioned that the tribute to the Boston Red Sox was his work, we both knew it well as we had documented that the day prior during our hunt. LTC Dingman joined the Guard during medical school as many others do. During one of his classes a recruiter was invited and after asking if any of the current students needed some extra money and tuition repayment, the Colonel couldn’t resist the offer. He has been deployed a few times prior all of which have taken him to Iraq.
When he spoke about his career choice and the work he has done for the Army, you can see his passion for the warfighters. Back at home, his specialty is pediatric psychiatry and he found this
quite useful here in for a few reasons. First, since many of these men and women have joined right out of high school his background in pediatrics serves them well. Also, as many of the troops have families and children of their own, once they find out about the Colonel’s specialty, they often open up more about the sacrifices of their wives and children and inquire as to his professional opinion on the mental health of their family. LTC Dingman truly enjoys his work and
spends as much time as he can talking with and getting to know everyone in his area of operation. A man more dedicated to the mental health of this Nation’s warfighters would be hard, if not impossible, to find.
A little bit of Bean-Town in Basrah by LTC Dingman
His interest in our project becomes the topic and we explain our intentions and the mission, to bridge the growing divide among the world and its service members. Capt. Porter explains our schedule to him and we ask him to accompany us through our tour of the local national murals just inside the gate, near the civilian airport of Basrah. He accepts and we head towards to vehicle picking up our newest addition, Matthew, our interpreter and local expert on Basrah and Iraq.
Matthew is in his mid-50s with wavy salt and pepper hair, his smile is contagious and boarders on mischievous. We all load up in the government issued Ford F-150 and begin our journey towards the edge of post. Matthew asks about the project and our interest in the art in and around Iraq. He is a wealth of knowledge about Iraqi culture and its history. Matthew was born in Baghdad and spent his youth there, attending Baghdad University. After graduating he moved to the US and spent his adulthood in southern California where he still resides today. The information and first-hand accounts he yielded to us would fill hundreds of pages.
We headed towards the outer gate to turn around and begin to capture these amazing murals created by the local populace. Matthew, the attentive host that he is, gave us the background of the security operations involved with the locals having access to the airport. We then began the hour’s long retrace of our steps, capturing images of the almost 100 separate murals lining the road towards the inner gate. These murals depicted life in what was once Basrah, before the winds of progress brought sand and an airport in place of the marshes and war and uncertainty
finished off the rest of the tourists. Looking at these beautiful creations one can imagine why this has been proposed as the location of the Garden of Eden. Palm trees lining the river, tall grass hiding the edges of the canals that gave Basrah the nickname, Venice of the Middle East. Interspersed between the historical memorials to a city lost, were paintings of the airport, traffic
control tower and modern progress. I think to myself how long this must have taken them, in heat above 120 and as if he read my mind, Matthew states that each window into the past took
just a day or so, incredible. These murals are at least 20 feet by 10 feet if not bigger and the fact
that the painter only took days and not weeks is near impossible to imagine.
Venice of the Middle East Mural Basrah, Iraq
We continue our pace, Andrea capturing the images and Matthew and I discussing the history of this once great land. He hasn’t much hope that Basrah will ever be the vacation destination of his youth again, the marshes now gone and replaced with an airport and military base. You can see the disappointment in his eyes and sadness of his soul. I cannot possibly understand as the vacation place of my youth continues to thrive, different but better, no military bases, no war just beaches and the playground of the rich.
We mention the mistakes of the war and of what transpired during the beginning of the US occupation and I bring up Bremer. Matthew’s face turns a brighter red and I can feel the disgust in the air now. He has the same questions as most do, what on earth qualified Bremer as the US Envoy? How could he sack the entire Iraqi army and send them along with their guns to hungry families at home? The mistakes of this war continue their outward rippling over 8 years after the making. Basrah shows the scares of decades of misdirected progress and almost constant war.
What could this place have been? What has the world missed out on and will never have the chance to know what could have been? God chose this place as his Garden of Eden, perhaps one day it will reemerge as the Venice of the Middle East or the world’s new Eden. For now, it couldn’t be much farther from either location.
After making our way back inside the relative safety of our military bubble, we headed towards “The Marshmallow” or so called that because of the uncanny resemblance the two story building had with the giant processed sugar ball. We were slated to meet with the members of the 912th Forward Surgical Team (FST) out of New England. This was their 3rd deployment since the Iraq invasion and, as they put it, "we came and turned on the lights and now we are shutting them off". They are supposedly the last FST that will be deployed to Basrah as the US is slated to pull all of her troop’s home by the end of the year.
912th FST Unfinished Logo, Basrah Iraq
We grabbed a photo of the 912th’s unit logo, painted on the T-walls outside the clinic. It hasn’t been completed yet though we were assured that we would be provided with the finished product. We entered inside the Marshmallow and headed upstairs. They had quite a set-up, a common area with each of their rooms on one side. A large TV with AFN playing in the background and a conference table in the center. They had been warned of our interest in their shared scaring of the skin, each of them had tattoos that represented their time in Iraq and their love of their unit. They were a close-knit bunch, their Captain, Randy Burlock, had come up for retirement, but after hearing his “guys” would be deploying to cut the lights in Iraq, he postponed his paperwork and joined his team for one final hoorah.
We interviewed Capt. Burlock as he has the most ornate and detailed of the crew. His entire
upper body is inked, each mural holding personal meaning to him. If he was a regular Joe, even a senior enlisted man, I wouldn’t have been so interested, however, he is a Captain, an officer and this much ink on an officer is rare. He is a quiet man, but I suspect it’s because we are strangers in his world. He has a twinkle in his eye that alludes to a different personality, perhaps one that once seen, could scare a Grizzly back into hibernation. At any rate he is gracious and allows us to prod and poke, even after waking him from a much needed nap.
Other men in the unit trickle in and we soon set up a group photo to capture their “meat tags” which are basically dog-tags tattooed on your side for, well, just in case. We exchange emails and phone numbers and take more photos. Their story is one that is heard quite often, citizen soldiers pulled far from their homes to serve a nation overseas, in a war that took longer than the
public wanted. These men are tough, their lives uprooted not once, but three times and speaking with them you can see they have no regrets, they would do it all over again, not for glory or
country but for their buddy on their right and on their left. These men know honor and courage but more than anything, they know commitment to each other and that is sets them apart from the rest, that true knowledge of commitment.
We left and headed back to our living quarters for the night another day in the desert finished.
The thought of going home washing over me, though I had only been in the region less than a month, I was already homesick and ready to see some greenery, creeks and rivers, some big puffy clouds and hopefully rain. Exhaustion sweeping over me, sleep not far behind, the modern marvel of air conditioning buzzing hard in the darkness. My thoughts drift out of focus, the
darkness washing out my consciousness.
Some Graffiti inside a Bunker, Basrah Iraq
My eyes wide open, the room still dark, not even a sliver of sunshine begging inside the door cracks. I thought I had heard something, my nightmares of Ar Ramadi broken by the outside world, but nothing in the darkness, no sound but the humming of electric air. Just as I had dismissed the all too familiar sound of my usual nightmare, I heard it again but I was awake, my eyes shut, but certainly awake. “In-coming, In-coming” then the siren blaring. I wait to hear the impact and the insurgents of Basrah did not disappoint. The dull thud and rumble, the impacts not close but still forced me from my bed and outside to investigate.
Our living space, little trailers surrounded by enormous T-walls, semi-portable barriers designed to deflect indirect fire, was quiet, no movement and the sun had yet to breach the horizon. I walked towards the bunkers looking around to see if anyone had the same idea. Next to the bunker two men, one in the Army issued Physical Fitness uniform and the other in civilian clothes, stood near sleepily waiting for the event to pass.
Again, “In-coming, In-coming” and this followed by an even closer impact, close enough to move the natives of this base into the bunker to which I followed on instinct. Memories of Ramadi seemed as fresh as yesterday now, the mortaring and constant rocket-attacks. We exited to see the results, no cloud, no smoke and then again, the ominous warning. However, it was followed by the burst from the C-RAM, an automated anti-indirect fire weapon that is fast and accurate
enough to shoot down these mortars in mid-flight. This time it was accurate and the round burst into sparks just over the horizon as the sun began to infiltrate the darkness. Again, the dull rumble at the incoming rounds continued to hit, ever closer still. In between the incoming rounds, you can hear the sound of small arms fire, AK rifles going off on full-auto and the 240-B, the 7.62mm counterpart firing back. This went on for what seemed to be forever as I was tired and ready to get back to my life outside of the combat these men and women have been facing
for over a decade. Less than 30 minutes from the time my eyes opened, the fighting was finished and I headed for my bunk, still 4 hours until our slated departure time. As I lay there in my bed, remembering my days in the Army with the 54thEngineer Battalion, I could almost see the memories play across my eyelids in HD. Watching the smoke rise from across the DFAC when the insurgents got lucky and hit the living quarters of some soldiers on the camp. I remember watching the smoke rise and all of us thinking but certainly not saying that it could have been one of us.
Cavalry Mural, Basrah Iraq
I have heard it so many times during this conflict that this war is different, different because death can come at any moment, even when you are doing all the right things. It used to be that bad soldiers, those who didn’t follow the rules who didn’t follow the tried and true advice of those battle hardened NCOs and Officers would be killed. Now, eating at the DFAC on a Monday or sleeping in your bunk on a Sunday morning could mean the end of your life. No longer did your life depend on whether you knew your job, but simple chance can very well be the difference between you going home in a C-17 on a cushioned seat curled up with a wool blanket or a wooden box with Old Glory draped over it.
Thinking about the small arms fire we all heard in the background during the early morning assault and I wondered how many people just died. Hopefully none of our warfighters or those in the Iraqi Army and security forces, but what about the other side? Though these men chose to attack this coalition base which assuredly had superior firepower, their lives have been snuffed out. Perhaps by one of our soldiers or marines, some 18 year old just out of high school now has a taste of killing, his conscience burdened with the taking of human lives. His mind has those images forever burned into his brain, in High Definition. That changes people, whether young or old, strong or weak, killing another person, taking their life whether justified or not, changes you.
Civilians back home rarely if ever think of what they have asked these men and women to do in their place, on their behalf. Now with the recent death of Bin Laden, more and more citizens back home believe that the war against Al Qaeda is over and with the withdraw of US forces in Iraq swiftly approaching, the danger, the bullets and IEDs, the killing of people is but a horrible memory. Sitting at home in the States I can see how one might assume that, even believe it, but here, thousands of miles away from the freedom of thought that exists in our bubble of civilization, the rockets and mortars feel quite real, the bullets still deadly, the killing and war continues, whether our voting public believes it or not.
It will be up to the greater population of our nation and the world to take initiative at striving for understanding at the events that have taken place over the past decade plus. Perhaps the knowledge of what happened, the mistakes of yet another war will forever change how we as a nation go about sending our sons and daughters into places that require not just dangerous actions but the actions that most of us would be unwilling to do. The age old game, killing in the name of…
Jaeson "Doc" Parsons
Military Turns to Resiliency Center to Mitigate Combat Stress
Local National Murals in Basrah, Iraq
Sitting outside the terminal, the weather seemingly calm and bright, but the news of our departure doesn’t bode so well. Major Huff walks out to our position, shaking his head as he puts on his patrol cap, his silence is worth more than an explanation, the flight looks to be cancelled. Kalsu seems too far a reach for us and my disappointment is palpable. Major Huff explains that we can catch a flight to Basrah and perhaps we can find a flight to Kalsu from there, but the weather doesn’t look to let up anytime soon.
Landing in Basrah, the jolt wakening me from my Dramamine-induced slumber, the only way to travel, my mind immediately began to boot up and race in a dozen different directions. As we taxied to our unloading point, my eyes began to wander around the cabin taking in the passengers around me. Where were they heading? On leave for R&R or coming back from the 2 weeks of rest that seemed like mere hours? You could almost see it on their face, the ones that were still on their way out, smiles that could not be contained, bright eyed and looks of excitement. And then the others, the ones that either were on an official trip inside theater, their eyes devoid of promise, disgust almost palpable.
Capt. Mary Jane Porter, our PAO officer met us at the terminal and took us to our billeting. We offloaded our bags and turned on the air conditioning before heading over to the resiliency center across post. MJ had to rearrange our schedule since our helicopter to Kalsu had been cancelled and we were slated to meet a few warfighters that managed the Army’s new program to mitigate the effects of combat stress and Basrah’s new multimillion dollar center.
One of older unit T-walls, Basrah, Iraq
Once inside, the cold-air washing over our sweat soaked clothes, we met SSG Richardson, a combat medic by trade, she was the NCOIC or Non-commissioned Officer In Charge of the facility. Though it was close to a shift-change, she agreed to show us around. SSG Richardson was on her third deployment to Iraq, the last two, including this one, was back to back. She looked tired and worn out, but was ever the professional.
From the inside, this facility hides its size, each pillar, Emotional, Physical, Social, Family and Spiritual, having its own room or rooms. Much like its counterpart in Tallil, it contains dozens of computers and phones to keep in touch with family and friends back home. As we moved from building to building, SSG Richardson pointed out the different areas of interest, an expert but then she should be as she is almost finished with this rotation and past due for a break. We made the circuit and entered back into the main facility passing a driving range with green turf and a net, the first slab of green I had seen since my departure from DC a few weeks ago. Amazing what a little green will do to brighten up an area.
Inside the main building there are massage chairs and leather couches where you can catch up on sports or the latest news, read a book or just take a nap. There is also a couple of rooms dedicated to the spiritual side of the pillars with areas dedicated to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and many others. Seeing the prayer rugs side by side the Christian literature, crescent moons alongside crosses I wonder why we can’t get over our religious differences, share space and play nice around the world like our mother’s taught us in kindergarten.
SSG Richardson, PFC Clement & SGT Brown - Basrah Resiliency Center
According to SSG Richardson, there is daily unit participation in getting through the training for the 5 pillars but since it isn’t made mandatory, the classes are often cancelled due to limited interest. In addition, due to the location and its distance from the main living area of the post this prevents many from taking advantage of this program and the facility. Also, the fact that the MWR facility is in front and that much closer to the living area, most service members prefer to use the MWR instead of walking the extra few hundred yards and use the new resiliency center. As SSG Richardson explains this you can almost feel the frustration in her voice with those who planned the location and layout of the building.
I ask her about the types of soldiers that use it, whether there are line troops that are given the opportunity by their command to take a break from the more dangerous places in Iraq and USD-S and use the facilities and she explains that a few units do rotate their combat troops through from time to time but that until the powers that be require many of these combat units to rotate their troops through, there will always be more admin and non-combat arms troops that have more opportunity to make use of the center, her frustration on the surface and in full view at this point.
I can understand her position being a former combat medic myself. As many of our fans know the military and specifically the Army has seen an alarming increase in the suicide rate in the last few years. So much so that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen has made finding a solution to this a priority among his administration. During my time in the Army I saw a lot of changes and went through countless PowerPoint presentations about how to look for suicide in your battle buddy or what to do if you feel suicidal, et cetera. There is no question that the mental health of our warfighters is a top priority among the brass sitting at the Pentagon. In fact, I would go as far as saying this priority is high even among Divisions and Brigade elements across the military’s area of operations. However, until going to mental health, or “The Wizard” as some individuals call it, becomes less a stigma and more of a strength and until the high tempo of deployments among our warfighters is lessened this issue and the numbers will at best, merely stagnate and remain at the current levels.
The NCO Creed, Basrah, Iraq - Ever in the minds of these leaders of men...
Though the top brass are doing and spending everything they can on these issues, nothing will get done until they can effectively change the way Company and Platoon level attitudes are. My Brigade Commander would visit sometimes, pat us on the back while we were training, subject his officers and senior enlisted among the Battalion to death by PowerPoint about how to mitigate the stresses on the troops, sexual harassment and suicide and then would go back to Hanau or wherever his are of operation was located and we would go back to business as usual. If the Army and the Military wants to change the way seeking mental health for combat stress or PTSD is perceived, they have to first change that perception among the Company, Platoon, Squad and even Team level elements.
Right now, in more places than not, around the world among military communities, service members that are truly affected mentally, by either issues prior to their service or for service connected problems, are being called “Pussys”, “Sick-Call Rangers” and much worse by their 1st line supervisors. Not by their Battalion Commanders, not by field officers and senior enlisted members, but by those leaders that are closest to them and by those this Nation has entrusted this incredible responsibility with, their Sergeants and Staff Sergeants, their Lieutenants and Captains.
I have seen guys that were put on “Suicide Watch” for being depressed or mentioning that they had suicidal thoughts to their 1st line supervisors, their Sergeants, and these men were subjected to utter humiliation for hours until they could be dumped off on mental health providers when the week began on Monday. I’ve seen Officers and NCOs in this Army act like insensitive, high-school kids poking fun and treating these scarred individuals like they were less than human. People that should have been leading by example and putting their skepticism away in the name of professionalism and the well-being of their fellow man, acting in such a way that embarrassed me to be in the same uniform as them.
The ever-present cooperation between forces, Basrah, Iraq
I would like to say that this was the exception to the rule, but unfortunately when it came to mental health and wounds that are unseen, it was the norm. The climate for getting help for emotional and mental issues is one that comes with the weight of the world in stigmatism. Not from the Pentagon or from Division HQ but from the Company and Platoon level and that is where these men and women have to perform, where the scrutiny is at its highest, in other words, this is their immediate family in the community. They would rather kill themselves than look like a failure to these men in charge of them and many times, they do just that.
My suggestion to General Chiarelli and Admiral Mullen is to figure out how to change the climate at the immediate command level, the Company and Platoon level if they truly want to change the suicide rate among service members. Change that and almost certainly you will see immediate results. If not, we will continue to bury our sons and daughters in the prime of their lives with wounds unseen by the naked eye but impossible to bear by the hero now in a casket.
As we left the center and headed for chow, my mind focused on what SSG Richardson had briefed us with today and what was ahead of us in the next few days. MJ had a full schedule for us for the 4 days we were in her care. The sun was setting in the distance as we waited to park, still high in the sky but the sand in the air just over the horizon was eclipsing most of the hottest rays. Night would come fast but sleep seemed to have been eluding me these last couple of nights, my sleeping pills were sorely missed. We filed past the Ugandan guards checking our documents with the tightest of scrutiny, annoying but a necessary evil to ensure the safety of our troops. Cleared and heading to chow, I missed the junk food back in the States, but I had no room to complain, free food is always good and beggars can’t be choosers, though I would pay $100 for a Taco Bell bean burrito at this point I thought as we entered yet another DFAC 7,000 miles from home.
JAESON "DOC" PARSONS
T-Wall mural on Camp Adder, Tallil Iraq
Flying in a C-130 hasn’t changed in the years that I have been away from the desert. As I boarded the belly of the beast I searched my memories to recall my last experience but as I sat down, I could only remember the netting seats. Packed inside like the proverbial sardines we were, the only relief came from the hot breeze filing through the cavernous inside of this huge bird. Looking around at the wires, cables and gear, it all started to flood back from 2006. As the rear closed shut, the breeze ceasing and the sweat pouring, I now remembered why my memory failed me earlier, for my own benefit, not many can say they enjoy the ride on a hot afternoon in summer.
We quickly take flight and I settle in for the hour or so jaunt from Kuwait to our destination in Iraq. My mind wanders to my cherry ride in 06 with Song and our SFC from Germany. To say I wasn’t nervous would be a blatant lie, but it wasn’t from the flight. I remember thinking about doing my job and whether I was ready to see what I most certainly would see as a combat medic. I was more worried about failing my platoon than dying. The uncertainty of death was more appealing than the certainty of humiliation.
Weightless, just for a moment but seemed like minutes, then the corkscrewing combat landing like some ultimate rollercoaster from 6,000 feet. Around and round we go, dropping altitude and my breakfast is soon to follow. Going from near zero-G to perhaps 2 or 3-G is not a feeling that is easy to explain, I just keeping wishing for the all-important screech of the wheels and solid ground beneath our wings. Just as the thought completes in my head, I hear that sound and relief washes over me, another flight without any embarrassing moments of uncontrolled breakfast release.
We taxi quickly to the terminal and the rear door opens with a sudden rush of hot air and light. Soldiers wake up and begin grabbing their gear and I look at them with quiet envy that they can sleep through those rides. Lurching to a halt, we all begin to stand and file down the ramp, one by one stepping into the searing hot prop wash to exfile another safe transport by our friends in the Air Force.
The Boondock Saints in Tallil Iraq
Heading into the terminal, I mention to Andrea to look for Major Huff and before I can finish the words my mind has formulated, he materializes seemingly out of thin air with a bright smile and introduction. We shake hands and laugh about flying military style then he takes us to our bags and helps us to his waiting vehicle asking if we are starving from our travels. Food being the farthest from my thoughts, I ask if we can get settled though I can tell this perhaps is a disappointment to our new escort.
He helps us load our things and we jump inside to head into the unknown as neither Andrea nor I have ever been embedded before. Looking around as Major Huff navigates the roads, we begin to see palm trees and bushes and right away the landscape looks familiar. Though we are only a few hundred miles north of Kuwait, the difference is palpable in terms of heat and aesthetics, though that will change in the days ahead.
Major Huff steers toward his Brigade building and the artwork of his soldiers, you can almost physically feel the pride of “Live the Legend” and 3rd Brigade as we file past headquarters, it is truly a stunning mural. Major Huff asks our interest and expectations during our stay with him and we explain our need for photos of art and the soldiers that create it all. He informs us of his plans to introduce us to a few that have a passion for it as we pull to a stop in front of some air-conditioned buildings surrounded by T-walls as high as a two story building.
Timeless quote of Dr. King.
He explains that we have arrived at our living quarters and Andrea and I are almost speechless with gratitude that we will have our own rooms with no one to disturb us. We off load our gear and he opens our rooms, the cold air inviting as one could only imagine after hours engulfed in 120 degree heat. I lay down my gear, take off my vest and stand enjoying the cool breeze rushing out of this little rectangular piece of heaven created by Carrier but sent from above.
My worship of this electronic god is broken by inquiries of dinner by Major Huff and now my stomach rumbles and I agree to his suggestions. He seems relieved and then explains that due to our quick arrival he skipped lunch and now I understand his earlier disappointment. As we load into his truck, my stomach rumbles again and food seems just what I need most as we have been given everything else by our gracious hosts. Quite a difference just a few years and a change of profession makes from when I arrived in Ramadi in 06. As we arrive at the DFAC, I realize that the changes I see are only so deep and the memories seem much deeper.
A memorial to the World Trade Center outside the DFAC
My eyes remain closed, but I am awake listening to the groaning of the air conditioner. My eyes open to find the room is dark, cool and the steady breeze keeps me curled up under the blanket. I can’t say I want to jump right out of bed, comfort holds me in her grip. My alarm sounds and I know I have only 30 minutes to gain my composure and loose myself from slumber’s hold. Lights on, towel in hand, I force myself out into the heat to the latrines, though just around the corner seem in full view of the morning heat. It seems hotter this morning, more intense. Dressed and ready with minutes to spare, Major Huff greets us, right on time breakfast on the mind. We greet him in kind and head to the Dining Facility to grab a bite and greet the day.
After breakfast we begin our search for art across Camp Adder with Major Huff as our escort. We begin on one side and work our way through, taking a history lesson along the way of the units that have come and gone from Adder. We meet up with some soldiers outside on a break, the full force of the sun beating down on their backs. Handing out cards and explaining what we are trying to accomplish, these men are happy to oblige and with luck we even find an NCO that had a hand in creating one of the murals. It feels like old times again, discussing the day, complaining of the heat and talking about home. One NCO remarks his son is currently serving in Afghanistan and tells me a story of when he requested of his son’s Sergeant Major to have his son drop, over the phone no less. Exactly what I could find myself doing, if one of my own boys was serving alongside me but too far to touch. I think his words were that he could still reach out and touch him though he was thousands of miles away.
Water is offered and we thankfully accept, this quite possibly is one of the hottest days I have had in recent memory. No doubt the temperature is high above the 120s and climbing. We break for lunch and take a much needed rest, the heat can squeeze ever bit of energy from you, even just standing in it. A few hours before 6 and the heat has subsided, the sun heading on to new places. We set out again to find the art we are after. Major Huff ride alongside us every step of the way. His enthusiasm is contagious and helps with our mission. He has an aura about him, something you can’t quite put your finger on, but you know you could follow him in a firefight and even smile while doing it. He has a spark about him and a walk like a field officer, very straight and determined, but his smile alerts you to his softer, funnier side. He is someone I won’t soon forget.
We finish our rounds and break for the evening full after another session at the DFAC. The day has been long, but the photos we got are more than worth it. I had no idea we would find this much here and more is to come. Major Huff has a surprise up his sleeve tomorrow, a soldier that paints here on post and we aim to interview her. We say our goodnights and I thank him for his help, support and determination to find it all for us. I am looking forward to curling up in that air conditioning, the cool rush of the room as I open the door is beyond explanation after the heat felt today. Sleep comes quickly, the steady rumble of the fan, thank God for air, thank God for air.
The Swimming Pool, Camp Adder Tallil, Iraq
The next day we finished up our guided tour of the post, on a mission to document everything painted, drawn, scribbled or sketched. In the end I believe our final figures were above 400. As the day drew to a close we headed towards the Resiliency Center, a new program created by the Army to better serve our men and women in uniform that deploy to these far reaches of the world. It teaches a pillar system in which the five pillars are focused on to ensure the resiliency of our warfighters. Emotion, Physical, Social, Spiritual and Family are separated by rooms which offer a place for these men and women to get away from the struggles of combat or the mundaneness of desert deployment. There they can settle in for some meditation or call their families back home via video Skype. They can watch a movie to escape or receive advice on those things they cannot escape from. The atmosphere is inviting and relaxed, you can’t help but feel more at peace just walking through the doors.
As we toured the center, Major Huff introduced us to SPC Freeman but she goes by Freedom. Her smile is warm and there is a sparkle behind her eyes. She is from New York City and has a passion for art. We gear up and head towards her living quarters so she can showcase her work. Andrea and I set up around the community gazebo to do an interview with Freedom while she grabs some examples of the work she does. As we figure out the last details of where she should stand as the sun has disappeared and the moon is just a sliver in the sky, Freedom returns with two examples of the art she creates during her deployment. Spectacular, beautiful creations on canvas with acrylic, I begin to ponder where I would put them in my house as she explains her passion. Andrea films and I ask the questions, simple and to the point so our fans and supporters know the individual behind the brush. You can’t help but smile as she speaks about her art, the glow on her face is enough to warm the night air. She finds working with paint to be very therapeutic and keeps her mind off her child waiting for her at home.
Dustoff, outside the Medevac in Tallil
Freedom is the reason for this project, the warfighter artist that finds solace in creation among the destruction of war. We wrap up the interview and discuss how we will be showcasing her art on our website and Facebook page. She beams with joy and her success becomes our mission at that very moment. Disappointing her would be a travesty and something I can’t accept, the warfighter artist is why we have the murals to photo, the entire book is based on the talents of the young men and women who pursue this activity among the dust and heat surrounding their lives here. Freedom is the first in what we hope is soon to be many of the deployed artists we will feature in the coming months upon our return. As we say our goodbyes and take some final photos, we promise to keep in touch and to get back to her soon.
Major Huff heads towards the terminal to check on our morning flight and the dread of the C-130 begins to haunt my mind. As we sit there awaiting the news of the when how and where I plan out my morning which will be no breakfast, just to be sure of no unwanted discharges and multiple round pills to prevent flight nausea. He returns with a grin and I here Andrea say the flight must be canceled then Major Huff explains that Andrea will now have the chance to fly her first helicopter ride and my relief is palpable. I could not be happier with the result of this news, my stomach relaxes, I feel as if the weight of that C-130 just flew off my shoulders.
We head back to our camp and off load our gear, make plans for morning breakfast which I will now indulge in. The smile on my face is stuck, what a great day we had, the art, the interview, the helicopter to Kalsu, things are looking bright for our little expedition and success looms like the light at the end of the tunnel. Sleep comes easy tonight, the fans roaring full blast and my mind clear of the stresses from fixed wing flight, the smile still on my face as I drift into unconsciousness.
Camp Buering, Kuwait
My eyes opened to a nondescript bunk overhead, the whir of the air conditioner in the background. What day it was or what the time was, I couldn’t tell you. My bearings coming in to focus but it still almost felt as though I was in a dream. Many of my dreams from the Middle East had me in transient barracks at one point or another. During my deployment with the 54th in 2006, our platoon spent weeks in transient barracks all across Iraq from Al Quim to Balad. After months of missions, my brain seemed to be imprinted with this pattern. Waking up, actually in transient barracks was surreal for a moment or two.
Three quick knocks on the outer door snapped me back to the here and now and my day’s mission came back to me. Andrea, our fixer, had made contact with a unit attached to the 3rd Army in Kuwait that had found some staff to allot to our goal of capturing images on Camp Buering. At 0900, SSG Richardson and company would be snatching us from the PX on Ali to spend the day documenting photos. As this was our first physical encounter with the military since our arrival, I was a bit apprehensive as to what would be in store for us.
Camp Buering, Kuwait
Though Andrea and I are both combat veterans, this is our first go around as civilians in country. Not just civilians but media embeds at that. This is an entirely new role for either of us to be in and like trying on a new pair of shoes; it takes some breaking in until comfort is found. Thankfully, SSG Richardson had a surprise up her sleeve that even she didn’t know about.
Coffee being my first thought, well at least in the top two, cigarettes being the other, I dressed, cleaned up (that is a relative term used loosely in the desert) and out the door I was. Heading over to the PX, we arrived at our predetermined rally point and I went in search of God’s elixir. Minutes later, the tallest coffee I could muster firmly in my grasp, we awaited our escort outside while local nationals peddled their wares to the deployed nouveau riche.
Andrea’s cell phone chirped and the word was they would arrive within minutes. Again, the anxious feeling as I awaited the NCOs who would escort us through Ali Al Salem and beyond, still breaking in my brand new role as media personnel. The heat of the day, mere moments from enveloping every facet of our bodies, SSG Richardson turns the corner of the T-wall and thrusts her hand forward with a pleasant hello.
Old Glory, The Kuwaiti Flag and WV
We exchange pleasantries and the usual disparaging remarks about the heat and head toward her vehicle for relief. I notice her accent, but I could not quite place it. Andrea had informed me earlier that our contacts were from a National Guard unit attached to 3rd Army, so out of curiosity I asked from what state. SSG Richardson replies West Virginia and with that my anxiety settles and my role seems to fit that much better.
Heading through the desert on our way to Camp Buering, we exchange locations and schools and I truly begin to understand what a very small world I live in. My eyes wander to the outside world as we tear across the desert, the horizon but a blur in the distance. No trees, no bushes, no life that I can see. Just miles and miles of desert, not dunes but flat light tan dirt as far as you can see with a sliver of asphalt snaking through it all. We arrive at Camp Buering and go through the exhaustive security checks, though frustrating, a necessity for those whose lives depend on it.
Doc and SFC OIiverio
Once free of prying eyes and checks, we head over to their HQ for a pit stop and some introductions. The art here is amazing and there is so much of it. Andrea and I are both salivating at the chance to capture what we can and our hosts are all too pleased to showcase their post. We arrive at HQ and meet with some of the unit, though scheduling conflicts prevent us from meeting with their Colonel. As we wait to leave a SFC Oliverio confronts me and asks from where I herald from. I smile and say Clarksburg, knowing with a last name like Oliverio, he must already know the answer. We talk about home and his relatives and more, quickly combing through the minutes until a horn beckons me to part. I just can’t help but smile as I walk away from their Battalion building with the WV flag waving up high. No matter how far you travel there is always a little bit of home just where you least expect.
The heat of the day is melting our insides as we snap photo after photo of the T-walls covering the base. Andrea and I take it in shifts as there are hundreds and hundreds of some of the finest examples I have seen yet. After taking over 400 shots, the sun forces us indoors for a much needed lunch break. The heat curbs your appetite until you cool off then it rushes back with a vengeance. I had no idea how hungry I was until we came inside. The growl of my stomach seemed to reverberate inside the tin walls of the Dining Facility. Thank God for Army chow.
We ate and exchanged funny stories of past deployments and shared our locations and units like fraternity friends, each unique but all share that similar core. I reflected at where we were and the years that have gone by since the last time I was in a chow hall like this. It all seemed familiar and very much the same, the only difference was me and how much I had changed.
Camp Buering, Kuwait
We spent the rest of the afternoon collecting photos, SSG Richardson escorting and Andrea and I snapping away. We gathered over 900 images in total, though some of them duplicate to ensure of the quality. Though hot, the day seemed to go quickly and before long it was time to head back to our transient lives on Ali. We packed up and left, back on the road to seemingly nowhere, how these soldiers find their way is a miracle on its own. The trip back was a bit quieter, our energy sapped by the burning yellow disk high in the sky. Before long we were on familiar ground back at Ali, ready for a shower a bite and a nap. We all exchanged cards and handshakes, promising to keep in touch and wishing the safety of the other. Thanks to our “fixer” and the graciousness of the West Virginia National Guard, if we were not able to go anywhere else this entire trip, this day and the 900 images that go with it, would still make this trip worthwhile.
Watching SSG Richardson and SFC Coffe head out towards the gate, I kept thinking about the odds of meeting the National Guard unit from my current home state some 7,000 miles away and somehow we found them, of all the units here, somehow we found them. The sun is low in the sky and the horizon is an orange glow, the heat finally subsiding, sleep is near. Andrea and I head our separate ways to our tents, the transient life for us.
Jaeson "Doc" Parsons
As the bus moved closer to the fluorescent lights, the outward beams illuminating the sand filled air, memories of the spring of 2006 flooded my mind. To be back here seemed unreal almost dream like. There is no question it is hot, but the heat really is different from what we left in Washington. Packing the car with our bags in the afternoon sun, dripping sweat into our eyes, and a reminder of where we are headed, to one of the hottest places on the face of the planet. Now that we are here, the weather almost seemed mild compared to DC.
Our travel plans took us from DC to Amsterdam, where we were to meet up with our European partner, Inge Bakker. As we entered the jet and found our assigned seats, I warned Andrea of my plans to sleep as soon as my ass hit the seat. I detest flying for many reasons that I won’t burden the reader with so I take Dramamine, the original knock you on your ass formula, which puts me right out. My eyes were heavy and I succumbed to sleep almost immediately. Due to the weather, our flight was delayed on the tarmac for over an hour, though to me it seemed mere minutes. However, Andrea was stuck in overdrive, alert and awake fighting a silent battle with the man on her right over the armrest space.
The flight to Amsterdam was a blur as one can imagine, however, I was woken up a few times when my knee ventured too far outside the predetermined limits of my coach seat and the drink cart slammed into it, seemingly to readjust my understanding of the rules of coach, arms, legs and feet inside your space at all times, please. I had it easy, though; Andrea continued her fight with the armrest bandit while her knees hollered with rage against the seat in front of her. By the time we landed in Holland I could tell she was ready for a break and I was excited to see Amsterdam.
Our hopes were dashed as we exited customs to find out we had landed almost 2 hours behind schedule. In addition, Inge was nowhere to be found and since I had not had the foresight to set up a meeting place, we spent the next hour paging, emailing and searching for one another. Once we met up, we didn’t have the time to sightsee, so we decided to exchange ideas, gifts and some laughs over lunch. Inge was kind enough to treat and I indulged in a Heineken, when in Rome, right?
Off we went on the second and final leg of our trip via airline, this time around, I was graciously given a window seat and no one on my right to fight over the armrest. Earlier I had taken another motion sickness pill to alleviate my anxiety and within a few moments before takeoff I was floating among the clouds in sleepy ignorance. Andrea, on the other hand, had an entire row to herself and was happily content with some much needed privacy. I think both of us were preoccupied with what was before us, looming ever closer, Kuwait and beyond.
With a couple bumps and some jerking this way and that, we grabbed the tarmac and headed towards the terminal. The cloudiness of drug induced sleep had worn off an hour before, so I was relatively clear and anxious to meet up with our contacts in Kuwait. First things first, we needed our visas for entry into the Kingdom of Kuwait. How to describe the chaos that is Kuwaiti customs and immigration….the best way would be your average DMV with a hint of the Walmart deli counter and no sign of order. My next thought was a dual purpose, coffee and nicotine. Thankfully, Andrea grabbed our numbers while I indulged in some much needed carcinogens. While we waited we began our quest to win friends and influence others. Incredibly, we met a contractor with a degree from my soon-to-be alma mater, West Virginia University. We exchanged pleasantries, cards and wished each other good luck as my number materialized on the “now serving” sign.
After an exchange of some Dinars and smiles, Andrea and I were off to find our bags and begin our quest to Ali Al Salem. Pushing past customs and finding all of our bags with ease, it seemed as if we would pass go and collect that $200 in record time. Much to our chagrin, this was not the case as we approached our designated rally point, the Cinnabon…that’s right that Cinnabon.
We were immediately approached by two, seemingly well intentioned local nationals who explained that they could take us to our destination for a low, low price of $40 per person, plus tips. Flashbacks of Cancun and the railroading my wife and I received upon arriving streaked through my mind. Andrea and I politely thanked them for their interest, but declined and set off to discuss options and formulate a plan B.
According to CIPC and our contact, who will remain anonymous for OPSEC reasons, we were supposed to meet up with our contacts at the Cinnibon and they would transport us to Ali Al Salem to await our bird heading north to Basra in 4 days. We decided to wait for the next military transport, which we were told by the $80 crew would not be until after 0200 (2 am for the laymen), 5 hours from present time. Due to our limited budget and our need to get situated and familiar, we agreed this would be the best plan of action.
My caffeine level was dangerously low and being on the verge of hypocoffeenia, we set up camp nearby the coffee shop and while Andrea, hereby known as “The Fixer”, began making calls and trying to ensure our success in transit, I started updating our loyal fans, family and friends. We made it, the hard part was over, I thought. Surely they must have just missed us and by 0200 our contacts will scoop us up and send us on our way to the LSA and beyond. Little did I know this was just the beginning and the headaches that would follow.
In what seemed like minutes, 0200 arrived and thankfully so did the military transport. We had made some friends during our layover and one was kind enough to point us in the right direction. We gathered our belongings, slung them on our backs and trailed the herd of contractors, military and DOD personnel out to the unmarked bus. Mere steps from the doorway of said bus, we were halted and asked to present some documentation and explain ourselves. After some debate, much of the same from just hours before, they decided to take us and dump our issues on those inside Ali. My eyes were heavy, the caffeine all but gone, sleep swooped in and out went the lights.
As the bus slowed to a stop, we exited to grab our gear and line up for instructions. The air filled with dust, the sun just minutes away. Inside the terminal we waited, Andrea and I looked like we had been hitchhiking the Sahara. My mind kept wondering what's next, where is our contacts, could this be where we meet them? The Specialist behind the wooden counter quickly pointed us out of his area, telling us we needed to find someone else to push our issues on.
We were out as fast as we were in, dragging the bags and hoping for direction from some place higher. Thankfully, our quest placed us with a civilian that pitied our plight and said the words I never thought would sound so sweet, transient barracks. I quickly informed my tired partner we found some relief and would have to deal with the issues at hand once we had some sleep.
We parted ways as the sexes are separated out here and as I dropped the last of her gear by her tent, the sun was just beginning to enlighten the desert sky. My tent was close by and the walk almost nice, the night had cooled the air just enough to give some relief. I moved into the tent as quietly as I could as it was half full of others in transit to areas beyond. I lied down for the first time in days, thinking of what was ahead of us in mere hours. My mind slowed and I couldn't hold a thought, eyes too heavy to open, sleep was just seconds away.
Jaeson "Doc" Parsons